In the early 1950s, writer Patricia Highsmith had every reason to hide her pride, and quite a few to hate herself. Living under the tyranny of McCarthyism was devastating for those with same-sex attraction—if homosexuality was acknowledged in public at all, it was condemned. And yet, Highsmith transcended.
Her second novel, 1952’s The Price of Salt (adapted this year into Todd Haynes’s celebrated film Carol), was a fairly straightforward account of a young woman becoming herself through a romantic relationship with an older woman. It went on to sell a million copies in paperback, but unlike the other pulp of its day, it didn’t ultimately punish its characters for their transgressive desires (said punishment was a disingenuous, but commercially necessary, convention of gay-themed pulp novels that existed to titillate with and capitalize on said desires). It offered a hopeful model of love thriving against the odds, of our innate ability to overcome what we’d come to understand as “stigma.” During a tamely rendered sex scene, Highsmith describes the point of view of principal character Therese like this:
And she did not have to ask if this were right, no one had to tell her, because this could not have been more right or perfect.
When I read these words earlier this year, they knocked me on my ass. There’s a reason beyond its high style and astonishing performances that Haynes’s Carol, resonated with critics and audiences. Its source material is 63-years-old, but the affirmation the film affords is a refuge from a world that’s still full of people who will tell you that your love is lesser and unworthy. They will do this insidiously, shirking away from the “bigot” label that their ideology seems otherwise at peace with. They will do this in willful ignorance of a people and their culture (how much Fassbinder do you think Kim Davis has watched; how much Baldwin has Mike Huckabee read; how much of the Pet Shop Boys’ discography does Rick Santorum own?). They will prioritize vague, poorly reasoned principles over actual human lives, whether it’s because they’re stupid or selfish. They are entirely ignoble in their endeavor.
“Progress is not an illusion; it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing,” said George Orwell, famously. It’s one thing to understand this truism on an intellectual level when you’re studying for the SATs, but it’s quite a different thing to feel it in your bones. Despite some considerable social gains gay people in the U.S. experienced this year—the Supreme Court’s countrywide legalization of same-sex marriage, President Obama’s call to end conversion therapy for youth—there was a visible backlash, personified by Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis and the movement to retain “religious freedom” in the form of retaining the right to discriminate against gays.
The cultural gridlock extends beyond the struggle between those who’d like to go through their lives without being denied because of who they are, and those who are so desperate to hold onto that ability to deny. Gay marriage is a reality now, in all states, yet gay bashings persist. The cultural examination of gay sex feels more honest and unflinching (How To Get Away With Murder gets away with way more than I ever would have expected on an Emmy-winning network show), yet Rentboy.com, a facilitator of sex between men, was raided and shut down. The gray areas of male sexuality were examined more closely than ever—MTV’s True Life explored the existential burden of gay-for-pay porn performers and academic Jane Ward dove deep into the man-on-man contact of self-identified straight guys. It’s a shame that her book lacked first-hand interviews with such guys, was entirely arbitrary in terms of what it accepted from straight guys versus what it imposed upon them as their true behavioral motivation, and that it flat-out lied regarding the results of at least one study it cited, but hey, it was an interesting topic, a good idea, and it’s not like anyone actually reads books anymore. If they did, Larry Kramer would no longer have any cultural standing based on the unreadable behemoth ramble he released this year. (I made it through 100 pages of The American People: Volume 1: Search for My Heart: A Novel and cursed myself for wasting that much time.)
In pop culture, we got we got the magnificent Carol, but we also got the galling Stonewall. Freeheld was tepid Oscar bait, but at least its screenwriter got to condemn a Hollywood system that all but ensured its artistic failure (he did this, of course, after it flopped). And at least there are filmmakers like Peter Strickland and Frederick Wiseman whose refusal to compromise yielded intricate depictions of queer sexuality onscreen. Plenty of people came out, sometimes in understated ways, sometimes in enormously messy ways based on lies that trivialized rape and attempted to capitalize on the gay community at a disingenuous remove. And yet, when the dust settled, Yusaf Mack seemed fine, jubilant, even. Most (if not all) was forgiven, and he described himself as “free.” At last, the guy got his happy ending.
One of my favorite cultural phenomena is anti-gay camp—that is, homophobes whose behavior is so outrageous that it’s hilarious in a so-bad-it’s-good way. That homophobia and the traditionally gay sensibility of camp would seem to be at odds makes for a delicious irony. It tastes like Memories Pizza. It sounds like Republican Senator Lee Bright blowing a gasket on the South Carolina Legislature’s floor. It looks like Kim Davis raising her arms to Heaven, her open mouth pointed upward to catch whatever she thinks God’s regurgitating at her. It probably smells like parmesan that comes from a cylinder, Old Spice, and mothballs.
Sometimes you have to laugh. It certainly beats crying. I do not mean to trivialize the pain or hardship that any bigot has inflicted on my brothers and sisters, but I also think we need to do more than sit around and be mad. We need to be our own heroes. We need to say, “Fuck it,” and live our lives happily. We need to be less beholden to stigma and its effects. If you have to, take your cues from the little girl waving the rainbow flag in the hateful street preacher’s face, from the little boy in the Barbie commercial.
Now, stigma is powerful and at times demonstrably damaging. Around World AIDS Day, I read a lot of pieces about stigma. This is a pertinent topic when it comes to HIV, as it has a way of tying logic in knots. From a legal perspective, in many states it’s better to be ignorant of your own HIV status than to know it. If you don’t know it, you can’t be charged with a crime for “reckless” transmission and exposure. If Michael Johnson (aka Tiger Mandingo) weren’t aware of his status, he wouldn’t be serving 30 years in prison, but he also wouldn’t be receiving live-saving treatment. This, and that he never had a shot in court anyway, expose just how backward our culture is.
There’s that tangible stigma, and then there’s the softer kind that’s perhaps a product of the system but delivered personally. There’s stigma that says being a slut is bad, or that taking PrEP means your moral fiber is frayed. To the gay guys reading, I urge you to resist this, as best you can. This is not to give a free pass to assholes (who either aren’t getting laid or are fucking hypocrites); it’s to encourage you to do you own work in reducing stigma in your life by simply ignoring it. There will always be assholes; you can only change you. Someone who would dissuade you from taking a pill that could save your life is corrosive beyond his shaming. His authority is not worth investing in. Out gays already have found within themselves the tools to transcend the noise that tells them that they’re lesser; keep those tools nearby because you’ll need them. The struggle doesn’t end at self-acceptance. I know it’s hard to graduate into what you think is your culture, to at last be around your people, only to find more judgement. So, you got to the end of the rainbow, and instead of whatever you were expecting, you found a pack of bitchy queens. Find the good guys and surround yourself with them. They’re out there.
I’ve written a lot about PrEP and quite a bit about the meaning of marriage equality, but in the end, they both just add to our list of options. Truvada is one pill you take once a day to prevent one virus. That is it. (Now, if we could only get it in the hands of the people that desperately need it but don’t have the economic access to it—like many gay men of color.) Marriage is just another life path that you can either embark on or avert. When you think of redefinition, don’t think in terms of institutions; think in terms of societal expectations. Our very existence gives us a head start.
Gays still have the burden of etching out a place for themselves in a society that isn’t always welcoming. But being forced to see outside yourself as a matter of course is also a gift. It is a gift, in fact, that keeps on giving. Some of the most rewarding conversations I had this year were with gay guys whose life experiences were foreign to me—Joey Navedo, a gay little person; Rev. Derek Terry, a black pastor who came out on national television; Tab Hunter, a ‘50s teen idol who all these years later still hasn’t quite embraced gay culture; my friend who spent two straight years on meth and then six months in Rikers. I found the arc of the Dallas BBQ chair-clobbering story completely fascinating; when it was finally revealed that chair-wielder Bayna Al-Amin is gay, it completely revised so many people’s perception of what had taken place. Identity is a mind-fuck.
After all that happened in the U.S. in 2015, the highs and lows, the victories, and the backlash, it’s clear that Michelangelo Signorile was right—it’s not over. “We need to be confrontational always,” he told me earlier this year in a conversation about his book. I think that’s a reasonable goal. Instead of writing a think piece when someone angers you by calling you “cute,” explain why you feel the way you do to the source of your anger. (Or, you know, find a better thing to get mad at.) Instead of putting money in the hands of bigots for your own viral profit, confront them with their hatred, try to hire them, and dare them to discriminate. That’s a much better story, and depending on what state you’re in, it may result in them having to pay a bigot fine.
In thinking about this piece, I spent quite a bit of time milling over this question: Are things better for gays in this country at the end of 2015 than they were a year ago? For many—not all of us—I think, the answer is yes. We have more options than ever, and I cannot come up with a more tangible way of measuring progress. Here’s to making even more in 2016.